September 23, 2019

When you go to war

“Ki tetze l’milchama … When you go out to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your power …  and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair and pare her nails and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time lamenting her father and mother, and after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. … You must not enslave her” (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

As a feminist rabbi, my first instinct is to be appalled by this forced marriage of a beautiful foreigner captured during the violent rampages of war. But upon closer examination, it is apparent that the Torah text is doing something more — it’s attempting to ameliorate the effects of lustful impulses released in the heat of battle.

The soldier who covets a female prisoner must first take her home, allow her to mourn her parents, to “do her nails” — only then can he “take her to wife.” If it is not worth the effort, after he has “possessed” her, he cannot sell her as a slave, but must release her outright.

As the Torah commentary in “Etz Chaim” points out, “Even the most marginal members of society are fashioned in the image of God, ‘b’tzelem Elohim’ and are to be treated accordingly.” While it may offer scant comfort to learn that a captive woman could be forcibly married, if not enslaved, the rabbis teach that the above limitations attempt to salvage an inevitable situation. The “cool down” period, the month that must pass before the marriage can be consummated, may remove some of the ardor of the battlefield, even if it cannot prevent lust and violence. This biblical “morality of war” distinguishes the Israelites from their neighbors, who did not face such prohibitions.

Ki tetze l’milchama … Once the Jews were no longer a sovereign people, but were scattered among the nations of the earth, the rabbis focused on the eternal war between the evil inclination, the yetzer hara, and the positive inclination, the yetzer hatov. Each human being was seen as a battleground unto himself. 

As Rashi points out, however, even the Talmud acknowledges that the battles against the evil urge might not always be won. In the words of my teacher David Hartman (z”l), “Rather than pretend that human beings will transcend their desires and hungers no matter what the circumstances, the Talmud aims at retaining some degree of dignified conduct within an otherwise brutal and anarchic situation” (“A Heart of Many Rooms”).

War, and its morality, remained a theoretical issue for the Jewish people for almost 2,000 years. The Torah’s admonition that “When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace” (Deuteronomy 20:10) or “When you war against a city … you must not destroy its trees” (Deuteronomy 20:19) was interpreted only in a spiritual, not military context. The Jews had no nation to defend. By the 19th century, the only military question facing Jews was whether to serve in a czar’s army or to plot an escape. 

Ki tetze l’milchama … In the 20th century, a miracle occurred. The Jews of Palestine cobbled together an army against overwhelming odds and emerged victorious in the 1948 War of Independence. The Jews were once again a sovereign nation, defended by a citizen army that has become the strongest military power in the Middle East. The morality of war is no longer a theoretical issue. 

In Israel today, a moral battle rages over the sentencing of Elor Azaria, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier who was caught on video by the human rights organization B’Tzelem Elohim shooting a Palestinian terrorist who lay handcuffed and subdued on the ground. Israeli military ethics forbid such action, and the IDF chief of staff called for his court-martial. 

A public uproar ensued, with parents of this citizen’s army protesting that the IDF did not support its soldiers. In the ensuing fray, then-Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who defended the IDF position, lost his post to Avigdor Lieberman, of Israel’s the extreme right. The trial has exposed a deep rift between the IDF and the current government, as well as dissention between military and civilian, left and right, and even Sephardic and Ashkenazi over the morality of a war that seemingly has no end in sight.

Are we all really created in b’tzelem Elohim, even those who threaten to cause us harm? Can there be a “morality of war” in a time of civilian occupation? How do you “retain some degree of dignified conduct within an otherwise brutal and anarchic situation”? What is the effect of a lengthy state of hostility on a nation founded on  Torah’s moral principles? What is the effect of war on the human soul?

Ki tetze l’milchama …

Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. For more of her Torah commentaries, go to